literature theory third space Uncategorized

Take two – New thoughts on Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: the Emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education (Whitchurch, 2008)

I find myself returning to what might be considered the source for discussion of ‘third space’ workers in Higher Education after first exploring it 7 years ago in this post. (As it happens, earlier today I used the term “academish” in a Threads post and I kind of like this as an alternative to third space in my world)

I am back for two main reasons – I am now at the very point end of my doctoral studies, with just over 9 months to go and need to think deeply about exactly how this theory informs and applies to my work. I have also had an EOI accepted for a third space (or 3S as I have taken to abbreviating it) special issue of the London Review of Education due in January and, again, want to make sure that I really know what I’m talking about.

The first time I read this, I was just beginning to cast around for ideas and for language to describe this space. Now that I have gathered data and looked at this world from all angles, I am far better equipped to decide if this gives me what I need and whether I might be able to extend it. Which is fine, at the end of this article, Whitchurch states:

“It is suggested, therefore, that new forms of third space professional will continue to emerge”


Whitchurch has certainly advanced and extended her own thinking about the third space (do I capitalise this?) in the years since writing this article, as have other writers that have picked up the concept along the way. Something I struggled with in the first pass was the fact that this article doesn’t really refer to EdAdvisors at all. It is far more centred around people in organisational leadership roles or senior administrative roles relating to work that sits between academic/educational and organisational. These include things like “student transitions, community partnerships and professional practice” (p.378). She focuses on professional staff in roles like general manager, finance/HR and niche specialists (research management, quality assurance). She excluded staff in academic practice and PD roles.

This is now ok to me as I know that I can look at later work for the EdAd focus. Instead what I really want to make more sense of is boundaries and boundedness and exactly how it works and what it looks like.

Sadly I still don’t think I have the clarity about this that I would like, but I at least can see the building blocks of the concepts which I feel will be fleshed out in subsequent work.

What follows now is the notes that I took reading this (properly) on my second time around. It will be somewhat disjointed and consist largely of large sections of quotes. This is primarily my way of having a conversation with the article and putting aside quotes that might be useful in my thesis.

From the abstract:

“The paper goes on to introduce the concept of third space as an emergent territory between academic and professional domains, which is colonised primarily by less bounded forms of professional”


From the introduction

“In this space, the concept of administrative service has become reoriented towards one of partnership with academic colleagues and the multiple constituencies with whom institutions interact”


This is one point at which I don’t think this necessarily applies to EdAds, because partnership suggests a relationship with relatively even power dynamics. Academic Developers may come closer to this than other roles but we are largely in a service position.

“As noted in Whitchurch (2006b), the terms ‘administration’ and ‘management’ not only lack precision as descriptors of the activities of professional staff, but have been contested in an academic environment, administration for its association with unwanted bureaucracy, and management for its association with what is perceived as an erosion of academic autonomy as institutions respond to competitive markets and government accountability requirements”


Using the concept of identity to provide a vocabulary to describe 3S workers who often have PG quals, teaching/research experience and work on complex institutional projects.

“It builds on contemporary ideas about the fluidity of identity (Delanty, 2007; Taylor, 2007) to describe ways in which individuals are not only interpreting their given roles more actively (Whitchurch, 2004) but are also moving laterally across functional and organisational boundaries to create new professional spaces, knowledges and relationships


From Redefining Professional boundaries

In her sample, she identifies 50% as bounded, 33% as cross-boundary and 17% as unbounded

These definitions are kind of the heart of this theory. At this stage, I am not 100% convinced that they are entirely applicable to EdAds but I think they provide something that I can build on.

“Individuals who located themselves within the boundaries of a function or organizational location that they had either constructed for themselves, or which had been imposed upon them. These people were characterized by their concern for continuity and the maintenance of processes and standards, and by the performance of roles that were relatively prescribed. They were categorized as bounded professionals


On re-reading this, I mainly note that Whitchurch identifies function OR location as ways that boundedness might occur. This is big for me as I had always thought about boundaries in terms of location, and thought that I was being far bolder than I turned out being in my proposal that function/activity might determine boundaries.

Individuals who recognized and actively used boundaries to build strategic advantage and institutional capacity, capitalizing on their knowledge of territories on either side of the boundaries that they encountered. They were likely to display negotiating and political skills, and also likely to interact with the external environment. These were categorized as cross-boundary professionals and, as in the case of bounded professionals, boundaries were a defining mechanism for them

P. 382-383

“Individuals who displayed a disregard for boundaries, focusing on broadly-based projects across the university such as widening participation and student transitions, and on the development of their institutions for the future. These people undertook work that might be described as institutional research and development, drawing on external experience and contacts, and were as likely to see their futures outside higher education as within the sector. They were categorised as unbounded professionals.”

P. 383

This is an even more senior/powerful role. On one hand, I can see this being primarily the work of ADs BUT is it possible that central ETs with a responsibility for implementing enterprise ed tech might be unbounded?? OR does the whole university effectively become their boundary? OR does the central/faculty divide form a boundary of its own?

A fourth category, of blended professionals, who were being recruited to dedicated appointments that spanned both professional and academic domains, was explored in greater detail in the second set of interviews. They worked in areas such as regional partnership, learning support, outreach and offshore provision, and were likely to have mixed backgrounds and portfolios, as well as external experience in a contiguous environment such as regional development or the charitable sector


This sounds closer to EdAds, in reality, but I still don’t love it. Whitchurch’s primary emphasis was on the first three categories, only expanding to define the fourth in her second round of interviews with professionals outside the UK. External experience in a contiguous environment might stretch here to capture the EdAds who came from schools/VET?

My main problem with the ‘blended professionals’ category is that it seemed to define people by their professional background while the other three define them by their relationships to boundaries in their current roles. These two things don’t seem in sync.

Bounded professionals might be said to be ‘social subjects of particular discourses’ (Hall, 1996, p.6) with identities that comprise essential elements ‘ “taken on” through shared practices’ (Taylor, 2008, p.29)


I should check out Delanty and Taylor on Identity

“The other categories demonstrate, as Delanty (2008) suggests, that identity construction may also be contingent upon the position that an individual adopts in relation to variables such as organisational structures and work teams”


This might be a nice link for me to springboard off to bring Org structures into the into discussion.

Whitchurch adds a note to her discussion of blended professionals that they occupy roles spanning both professional and academic domains in areas including regional partnerships, learning support, outreach and offshore provision.

She also notes that bounded staff are generally not 3S

This typology is offered an a heuristic device to illustrate a disposition towards one spatial location or another and comes with the ‘health warning’ that individual positionings are not necessarily fixed or immutable, in that individuals may, for instance, occupy different forms of space at different stages of their career, or move between them according to circumstances


This is another big one for me as my data indicates a certain fluidity between 3S categories or a reluctance to be put into one basket.

Respondents in the study also suggested that an entree to, and understanding of, academic space was essential to growing new forms of activity and integrating them within the institutional portfolio… A key element was developing an appropriate language, for instance about partnership activity, that ‘spoke to’ both academic and professional world views


This is another key point that I missed the first time around – the importance of ‘code-switching’ to demonstrate that you understand the people that you are working with.

There is still a frustrating lack of detail about exactly what form boundaries take or how they work. I am a sucker for some practical examples. Given that she did semi-structured interviews, the absence of participant quotes seems strange too. I get that boundaries can be many different things but still…

At the same time as legitimacies associated with administration and management are contested in the literature, there is evidence that staff are constructing new forms of authority via the institutional knowledges and relationships that they create on a personal, day to day basis


This refers to the tendency of academics to come back to you for help once you have successfully assisted them in solving a problem. This may including seeking help for problems outside your remit or expertise. There is a very interesting nugget of an idea here for me that EdAds, who are commonly considered tools of management (particularly central ones) can strive to establish themselves as experts occupying neither space. A tightrope to walk, sure.

“Credibility within an institution, therefore, would appear to depend on building a profile in the local situation. In turn this is likely to be facilitated by, for instance:

  • gaining the support of a key individual such as a pro vice-chancellor
  • obtaining academic credentials such as a master’s or doctoral degree
  • finding ‘safe space’ in which to experiment with new forms of activity and relationships
  • being comfortable with institutional ‘messiness’ (De Rond, 2003) and projects that may be unfinished and unfinishable; and
  • being able to use ambiguity to advantage; for instance, an individual might use the fact that they do not have a clear association with a specific organisational or professional location to build common ground with different constituencies.

It may be, therefore, that not only will third space experience be increasingly attractive to staff, but also that it may become a prerequisite for career development. It may also be that the concept of the generalist professional manager is being superseded by the idea of the project manager, who carries generic experience from project to project”


Ok, so there is a fair bit to unpack in this short section and I must acknowledge that I have less understanding of the specific work areas that Whitchurch was writing about. It is hard not to take away some sense of professional staff being seen as tools to get the job done who can then be disposed of – hopefully going off to find another project to be an expert on but ultimately that is their concern. Job security doesn’t seem to be noteworthy. It would be interesting to explore, 15 years on, whether working in the third space in these kinds of roles has in fact become seen as more desirable as an employment option. Third space work as EdAdvisors has certainly flourished but I couldn’t say that it necessarily reflects the autonomy implied in this work. Based on the data in my survey, it would appear that around 70% of EdAds have ongoing/permanent contracts, so this concept of fly-in, fly-out experts doesn’t seem to apply here.

The individual dot points are interesting in themselves. High level support for your project is certainly vital, I am less convinced that having a master’s matters – but a doctorate may be another matter. Creating a safe space for experimentation is a perennial call but I do not recall seeing this actively embraced anywhere. Being comfortable with institutional messiness is absolutely a vital survival strategy – there are far too many cooks in every HE kitchen. I am unconvinced that many if any people are able to present themselves as neutral in the third space, given that they are invariably employed by central and their brief almost always involves pushing a university initiative, which commonly conflicts with individual or faculty priorities.

Whitchurch acknowledges the differences in management at play between project-based work and ongoing line management:

“despite the fact that individuals working in third space were characterised by strong lateral relationships and networks, they appeared to find hierarchical relationships and line-management responsibility for their own staff more challenging.”


Implications for institutions

Whitchurch goes on to consider the impact of organisational structures on the effectiveness of 3S workers

“While bounded approaches to bounded activity are likely to continue to be required to maintain processes and systems, to safeguard academic and regulatory standards, and to ensure organisational continuity, it may also be helpful for institutions to consider how these might be balanced with less bounded approaches… Discussions about the shape of the professional workforce might include, for instance, whether or not more project oriented individuals might assist in stimulating new thinking and ways of working”


She ties boundedness to organisational silos and goes on to ask if, because most of her bounded subjects are in their 50s, boundedness is a generational thing.

“Although more flexible working practices appear to be associated with younger staff as might be expected, it may be that less bounded form of professional become more bounded if they remain for a long period in the same field, in turn creating their own boundaries”


The very obvious (to me) follow up question would be whether this happens with discipline based academics and whether this is equally seen as a cause for concern. Once again, I must note that Whitchurch’s subjects in this study were more management focused. I also note that in my data, Education Technologists (ETs) seem to skew a little older than other roles (Learning Designers or Academic Developers) and have also, generally, held the same role for longer. The question of whether and how ETs are bounded has particular interest for me – being one, and also noting that this is by far the most under-researched of the EdAdvisor roles. ETs occupy a particular niche but their work necessitates engaging with many different parts of the institution to get things done and knowing how to navigate these relationships. Maybe part of this LRE paper needs to include an examination of levels of boundedness between different role types.

Whitchurch alludes to the idea that there is a third space other than central/faculty – but frustratingly doesn’t say what it is

“Organisational positionings of staff may, therefore, be more complex than, for instance, Clark’s (1998) distinctions suggest, in that professional staff are not only operating “at the centre” (in the central Administration) and the periphery (for instance in academic departments) but are also creating new locales in the third space”


Moving around institutions

“…the study suggests that it may be helpful for institutions to modify a belief that such mobility represents ‘disloyalty’, in that such individuals may make a more significant contribution to an institution in the period that they are there than more long-serving staff. There may need to be, therefore, a revision of the value accorded to professional staff who bring expertise from elsewhere, but also have the potential to move on when they have completed a specific project”


Again, the point is being made with the best interests of the institution in mind here but I can’t help feel that it overestimates the respect given to the expertise of professional staff at the best of times, and it also seems rather unconcerned about their disposability. This might be clarified by encouraging more mobility within the institution while also supporting ongoing employment. Or does she just assume that highly skilled practitioners with experience in one institution will have that experience valued in another and they will be highly sought after?

She concludes with a statement that I like, which I partially quoted at the start of this post.

“It may also be that those institutions that are able to give recognition to more extended ways of working with be the most likely to maximise the contribution of their staff, and to achieve an effective accommodation with their current and future environments. It is suggested, therefore, that new forms of third space professional will continue to emerge.”

Whitchurch, C. (2008). Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: the Emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education. Higher Education Quarterly, 62(4), 377–396.